Saturday, May 30, 2009

Weekend Update: Sunday

Mom L guessed right...that was a jellyfish! Last Sunday, Miss Chef and I did a road trip to Atlanta, to see the Georgia Aquarium. Little did we know it was not 2 1/2 hours away, as Miss Chef believed, but closer to 4 hours! And little did we consider this: biggest single saltwater tank in the world + national holiday weekend + major metropolitan area = BIG CROWDS.

Well, we managed to have a decent good time anyway. We took over 100 photos, but most of them came out pretty fuzzy, darnit. I've collected 20-some decent shots in a slideshow, because there's not much storyline in this story.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Weekend Update: Saturday

Hi, and welcome back to Flartopia! Sorry it's been kind of boring around here this week. As luck would have it, Memorial Day weekend was booked solid, and I'm still reeling from all the activity! But it was all fun and interesting, so my goal is to share each day's events separately, to do them all justice.

Saturday morning was, of course, market day. We even got to step behind the vendor's bench and watch the Bosky Acres booth while Michele ran off to the ladies' room. It was an unexpected glance into the variety of customers to the market--mostly very open and friendly, but a few very demanding, retail-style shoppers. Odd.

Ok, but the really cool part of Saturday was the farm tour! New Town Farms, run by Sammy Koenigsberg and his family, was one of the founders of our favorite market, over a decade ago. Sammy and his wife Melinda have been farming for almost 20 years, and they have developed into a model organic, local, viable business.

Unfortunately for Miss Chef, Saturday night is always a work night, so I had to go on my own. (She told me later she was very jealous, but she hid it well, I have to say.) When I arrived at the property, I was sure I had gotten the address wrong. For one thing, there were no signs, no gathering of cars or people, and this was the only house I saw:

"This is not a working farm," I told myself. It was far too manicured, and there wasn't a fence, animal, or clod of manure in sight. However, after driving further on and turning around, I finally found someone to ask....turns out I was an hour early. Oops.

But that had some benefits! The person I asked turned out to be Melinda, and she explained that the house in question was her father-in-law's former residence. He passed away a couple of years ago, and now they are using this as a rental space for events. It was here we would gather after the tour, for hors d'oeuvres and refreshments. It was in this spacious kitchen that I spent the next hour slicing bread and chatting with Sammy's and Melinda's two oldest daughters--one of whom had just sold us carrots that morning. Love it!

So, to give you a little background, Sammy and Melinda were given about 15 acres of the family land when they decided to go into farming. Sammy acknowledges that New Town Farms is in a very unique position--they were given their land, built their own house, and inherited a lot of their equipment. Since they don't have payments on any of that, they've been able to invest that much more into the land and developing a customer base. After Sammy's father passed away, he inherited the remainder of the land, 39 acres in all. The manicured area I'd been driving around on was the senior Koenigsberg's property, not the main part of the farm.

Ok, on with the tour. First we stopped at the greenhouse, which is one of the pieces of equipment they inherited.

At this moment, it was empty of plants, but we did get an explanation of how the farm makes its own potting soil, and a demonstration of a hand tool that compacts the soil and separates it into cubes. I tell ya, I learned a fair amount about gardening for my own quarter acre!

Next, we tromped down a grassy slope to the edge of the woods, to visit the pigs.

These are a heritage breed, Ossabaw, named after the island on the Carolina coast. They are descendents of pigs abandoned or escaped from Spanish explorers--the same genes in that fabulous cured ham that Spain is famous for. These pigs are hard to get, apparently. Sammy told us that he was lucky to get them from a woman who wasn't able to accept hers when they became available. Turns out, they are from Mount Vernon--as Sammy said, "George Washingon pet that pig." Well, sort of.

Being bred from a feral population, these pigs are winter hardy, and get a good portion of their food by rooting in the woods. They have about three acres to run in, surrounded by a very low electric fence. Sammy pointed out the benefits to the pigs and to the humans: pigs are born to root, and those raised in industrial farms are trapped on concrete. I've read elsewhere that they'll go nutty enough to turn cannibalistic, so their tails are often cropped off, to prevent the other pigs from chewing on them. For us, we get a better-flavored meat, with all the various nuts and leaves that make up their diet. And, of course, the satisfaction of knowing that our bacon had a pain-free and fulfilling, if short, life.

The next stop on the Breakfast of Champions train was to the laying hens. Check out this awesome coop!

To the right, behind that tree trunk, is an enclosed end with nest boxes in it. The hens are free-range, locked up each night to protect them from predators. There are about seven or eight breeds in the flock...some that Sammy mentioned were Rhode Island Reds, Araucanas and Dominiques (which I think is an endangered heritage breed?).

Here's a closer look at some of the lovely laying ladies.

*sigh* Aren't they gorgeous??

Ok, we had to leave the chickens way of the compost pile. Sorry, no pictures! But I will tell you that standing between the fragrant chicken coop and the fragranter compost pile was not for the faint of nose! Sammy includes this in all his farm tours, because, as he says, the soil is the heart and soul of organic farming. By allowing the soil to be nourished naturally, not only does he cut down on chemical fertilizers trucked in from afar, but he also is able to raise healthier plants that require less defense from pests in the form of chemical pesticides.

And then we were off to those healthy plants! First we passed by the blueberry bushes...

...and then to the rest of the fields. Sammy, Melinda and their eight children cultivate about three acres of a remarkable variety of vegetables. (The children are home-schooled, to boot, and none of them seem at all resentful of their farm-centered lives.)

As I stood looking over the lettuce field, I thought, "This is where my food comes from." And it was a very, very good feeling!

Sammy stopped frequently to pull plants from the ground to show how they grow and how they're harvested. He pulled this out to show us what he said is the biggest crop of romaine he's ever seen:

After each such demonstration, he would hand the plant to a visitor as a sort of door prize. No, I didn't get the giant romaine; I got an Italian beet that looks like a peppermint candy inside. Doesn't taste like peppermint, but nothing's perfect.

Here's a sample of what we saw: peppers, eggplants, garlic, celery, fennel, sweet peas, potatoes, tomatoes, beets, carrots (they pulled 100 bunches the previous day, and sold out by 9 am at the market that morning), onions, lettuce, kale, cabbage, broccoli,, strawberries...oh, and you know, tons more.

The last stop on the tour was to the broilers, which are raised in a "chicken mobile," a la Polyface Farms (as described in Omnivore's Dilemma). In fact, Sammy originally used a mobile based on Joel Salatin's design, but said he hated it, so redesigned it. He does have an architecture degree, so, again, unfair advantage!
Twice a day, a golf cart is hooked up to the coop, and it's moved one length forward, giving the young birds inside fresh foraging. They are a bit crowded, but still have room to move, scratch around and be chickens. At the same time, they are spreading their own fertilizer across the pasture, working it in as they, er, go. And you can see the results:

That darker green strip on the left is where they've already been. I did play with the contrast on this a little, but only to get it closer to what we saw standing there. It really was a remarkable demonstration of What Works.

We then repaired back to the Inn, where we enjoyed hors d'oeuvres consisting of New Town veggies, salami made from one of their Ossabaw pigs, fresh bread baked by one of their CSA* members, and goat cheese from our very own Bosky Acres! Plus organic wines, which I didn't partake of, having a 40-minute drive home.

This was the courtyard where we gathered to share gardening stories and the history of some of the local farms and markets.

*CSA = community-supported agriculture. Members pay an up-front fee each year, and during growing season receive a "basket" of fresh produce each week, fresh from the farm. It gives the farmer working capital and assured income, and makes it more convenient for the customers.

Ok, that's it for Saturday! Next up, a Sunday road 'bout a little hint?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Au Revoir, Mon Papillon

Today was the day. This morning, when I checked on Herb, his little green case had begun to turn dark gray. I thought I'd seen some grayishness showing through when I put him outside the other day, but I suspected myself of wishful thinking--you know, how you might suspect your little boy's voice is dropping, but then he clears his throat and it was just your imagination? (I dunno, I'm kinda making that up, but you get the idea, I hope.)

This evening, I got home early, and dragged Rosie out back with me to check on the little guy. (She couldn't have cared less about him, but there's always the possibility of rabbits!)

I eagerly stepped up to the sage plant, and peered down into it. There, on the stick, was a faded, papery, empty cocoon. Stupidly, I lifted my eyes and scanned the yard, maybe thinking he'd just left and was still hanging around the garden. But nope, he was gone. Didn't even leave a note. "So long, and thanks for all the parsley." Just an empty casing; insect trash.

Somewhere, around the neighborhood, is something that looks a little like this:

Good luck, Herb! Thanks for stopping by!

I didn't get a chance to snap a pic of the empty pupa before dark, but I'll add one to the bottom of this post when I get a chance.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

First Harvest / Herb Update

Ah, my peas...I've never been so enthused about peas in my life. Last year I planted a few, and had moderate success. By which I mean, they were absolutely delicious, but I never had enough to make a full serving of them. This year, I went all out. After Miss Chef built me an 8-foot tall trellis, I ran out and planted over 20 seeds, to ensure maximum harvest.

And they're growing. I've already posted a few shots of them climbing up the trellis. But they don't let you really see the number of flat little pods that seem to appear overnight. Each evening after work, I circle the garden, checking on their progress. I keep tabs on the rainfall, ready to water the plants if things get too dry.

The other afternoon I noticed you can see the tiny little pea profiles inside their pods, when the sun hits them from the back:

(There's one right in the center of the pic--you might have to biggerize it to really see it.)

Monday evening I couldn't resist; I plucked a pod and popped it open. The tiny green peas were just what I'd been hoping for--tender and sweet, almost creamy in texture.

As a child, I had shelled plenty of fresh peas out of our garden, but I never noticed, appreciated or cared about their surprising sweetness. I grew up surrounded by the freshest of produce, and had no idea how lucky I was! Well, now I understand, and I still have time to make up for it! For the next little while, I'm going to be a pea geek.

Tonight I decided there were probably enough plump pods to pick myself a small serving. I carefully--and excitedly--crouched my way around the trellis, pinching pods to test their size. I think Rosie thought I had gone insane; she's probably getting jealous of all the attention those stupid green plants are getting!

It didn't take very long, and I ended up with a small handful, which I trotted straight inside for shelling. Of course, that left me with an even smaller handful!

I remained undaunted...this is about half of what my entire harvest was last year, and this is just the beginning of this year's harvest (I hope!). I decided to add them to a bit of leftover salad from today's lunch, refreshing it for tomorrow's lunch. I figured I'd just add some more lettuce and other crudités, then top it off with my fresh, sweet, tender peas.

When I opened the refrigerator, though, I suddenly remembered Miss Chef saying we had used up all the lettuce! Oh no! What to do??

Quick thinking me--"Duh, we have spinach outside!" It was just about full-on dark by then, so I hustled outside and snagged as many spinach leaves as I could without stripping the plants. This year we only ended up with 5 plants, for some reason, but four or five leaves from each adds up.

Then I stopped by the box of arugula, but only got a few leaves from them, as they've already bolted.

In case you're not familiar with the term, "bolting" simply means they put up those long shoots and started to flower. Most greens do this when they reach a certain maturity, or the temperature gets warm enough. This often turns the leaves bitter...though Miss Chef recently read that you can eat arugula flowers. I'll let her figure that one out. At any rate, they are still pretty to look at!

Back inside, I reassembled my salad, and thought it looked smashing! Even better, I realized that, without thinking about it, I was eating mostly local: most of the greens, the peas, the goat cheese, the carrots and the radishes (which are mostly buried).

( On the other hand, the dried cherries are from Michigan, and the dressing I'm gonna pour all over it tomorrow is from Hawai'i!)

Thus ends the first meal from the garden...although, technically, the meal won't even start until tomorrow afternoon. But I can assure you it will be as delicious as it looks--and I'm sure I'll inform anyone who asks that I growed most of it myself!


And now, as promised, here's the latest on Herb. He/she/it is still snugly ensconced in his/her/its pupa, but should be emerging any day now. I realized that there's a very good chance this might happen while Miss Chef and I are both at work. The only container I could come up with was a narrow-mouth quart canning jar, and I didn't want to have a new butterfly bashing its wings on the glass sides, trying to get out. I was afraid it would lose too many scales to survive.

So I made the decision to put Herb outside. I waited until today, because it's been pretty cool, especially at night, and I wanted to avoid a big, sudden temperature change between inside and outside. But it was in the mid-70s when I got home tonight, so I pulled him out and found a relatively sheltered spot to put him.

This is a potted sage plant a friend of ours was supposed to come get many moons ago. It's up on a stand next to our patio furniture, in an area where I haven't seen a whole lot of birds. Plus, as you can see, the green pupa blends in quite well! Way to go, Herb! (Like my arrow? I'm very proud of myself for figuring out how to insert that with our picture editing software.)

In the end, I may not be able to share pictures of Herb's final reveal. But I'll be checking on him morning and evening, and will be quick to grab the camera if I see anything spectacular going on! At the very least, there should be left an empty green casing. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, eh?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary...

I know, I've just been dying for an update on the botanical goings-on at Flartopia estates. It's been an exceptionally good year for growing things here...considering that this is the first spring since we moved in that we haven't been in a drought! We've just put the last plants into the garden--that would be the invisible tiny basil seedlings in the front there. If they all grow big and strong, we'll be able to supply the entire neighborhood with pesto.

From left to right: garlic (barely visible stringy things), brussels sprouts (all brussel, no sprout so far), peas in the back, a few peppers and fennel along with basil in front, then beans and potatoes. There's a line of tomato plants in the back, behind everything else.

This is Miss Chef's knocked-together pea trellis, made with love out of remainder wood found in the shed. We were out looking at the peas this morning, and I was amazed at the number of flat little pods hanging around. I actually clapped my hands in glee!

And look at the little bonus surprise they've already given us:
Pinky pea petals! These plants are from seeds we saved from last year's crop; I'm guessing they were a hybrid, so who knows what we've got now?

Miss Chef's herb garden has filled out nicely. I missed capturing the beautiful blue sage flowers, as Miss Chef cut them for a bouquet for me. (Awwww...) But now the sweet woodruff (left, rear) is starting to open bunches of teeny tiny bells. Miss Chef has started to bring herbs in to the restaurant about once a week, just to supplement what they've got.

And let's not forget them flowers!

My mother made that stepping-stone as a birthday gift for me last year. Besides adding color and structure, it's a great way to have a landing place in the bed when we're plugging in the little fountain (another left-behind from the previous owners).

These poppies were also planted by the previous owners. Each year we get more blooms from it; I couldn't resist capturing the way the afternoon sun lit them up.

These ice plants are one of Miss Chef's best successes. We had planted them in several beds in front of the house, where they were doing fine. Miss Chef wanted to put some other ground covers in there, so moved these to the rather bare side of the house by the driveway. Within a month, they had taken off, and now completely cover that bed, opening up beautiful little flowers all spring--with no help from us.

And my success was several gallardia plants in another front bed, which were supposed to be annuals. This is the third spring they've bloomed, and they're really amazing me!

You can water all you want, but there's no substitute for regular soaking rains.

While I was weeding my way through that bed, there was all kinds of baby mockingbird chirping in the holly bush. Then I heard some weird noise on the front stoop, and learned there are two baby birds hanging around!

Looks like somebody forget to put their tailfeathers on!

And now the rains have returned, so it's back into the kitchen to do some dishes and process yet another gallon of strawberries. This one's going to be half frozen, half dried in Miss Chef's new dehydrator. It's a nice little project for a lazy, stormy Saturday afternoon.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mommy's Little Darlings

Okay, Mother's Day is quickly receding in our mental rear-view mirrors, but I have yet to update you all on my trip.

It's not an exciting story; it was a quick, quiet visit. I drove down to my parents' home on Jekyll Island on Saturday, about 5 1/2 hours. When I arrived, I unpacked the cooler, first handing Mom the adorable little bouquet Miss Chef cut for her before I left. I made sure to give her full credit; she got major Mom Points for that one!

We had dinner--leftover lamb Mom made for the neighbors the night before--and just hung out for the rest of the night, chatting, reading and drowsing off in front of the tv. I was pretty tired from my week and the drive, and headed to bed early.

Sunday morning we went to church--my first gift to Mom was dressing appropriately and not grumbling. :) Nah, I'm not that bad. Mom left early, because she's in the choir; Dad and I stopped at Winn-Dixie on the way in to pick up a few last-minute ingredients for dinner. At church, Dad introduced me all around, and without exception each friend of theirs turned to me and said something like "Oh, you poor thing!" See?? It's not just my imagination; my parents are a handful!

After church, we went home and each figured out lunch for ourselves--typical Sunday afternoon for us. Then Mom & Dad started napping, while I started on dessert. I made a pound cake, and I was glad I started early, 'cause it needed an hour and 15 minutes to bake! Phew! I did manage to work a short nap in there, myself. No Rosie nudging me in the nose; Charlie is 14 years old and just as happy to nap as to play.

Soon after everyone came to life, I started on dinner. My biggest problem with these kinds of meals--other than forgetting to include a veggie dish--is timing. I try really hard to get everything done at the same time, but then it all gets done at the same time and I don't know which way to turn. However, I did figure the mashed 'taters should be done first, as they could sit in the oven for a few minutes. As it was, I had to call Dad in to finish them up; he was an able assistant, and made a few helpful adjustments on those taters.

So here's the menu Miss Chef helped me come up with: filets mignon cut from a tenderloin Mom already had; mashed potatoes with herbs from our garden; fresh asparagus from the farmers' market (also sprinkled with some of the herbs); and a salad Mom offered to toss together--spinach with cottage cheese and roasted walnuts. She honestly did a very good job staying out of the kitchen, which is an admirable accomplishment for her.

For dessert, I topped slices of homemade pound cake with some of the strawberries in syrup we had canned the week before. When I wished aloud for whipped cream to go with it, Mom mentioned the ice cream in their freezer. Problem solved!

Mom said everything was delicious---which of course she would, but I think she meant it anyway. I didn't think about taking pictures until halfway through dinner, at which point...well, I didn't think you'd be interested.

After dinner, we abandoned the dishes--and the dog--and drove to the oceanside beach for a short sunset stroll. I did manage to remember the camera for that!

Dad pointed out this impressive thundercloud. It was probably over Alix's house. Hey, Alix! (waves)

(Oh, and the picture at the top is the pavilion there on the beach.)

Then we drove home, woke the dog up, and spent the rest of the night chatting, reading and watching tv. I truly enjoyed my access to the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and so on. Dad even let me handle the remote for a while!

So that's it; I got up the next morning, packed and left. Mom sent me home with a couple of uncooked filets and a "volunteer" crepe myrtle that they'd been wondering what to do with. She certainly appreciated her Mother's Day gift. Now Dad's gonna be jealous if I don't come down next month!

In the meantime--back at the ranch--Miss Chef was working her little tuchus off. She worked 10 hours on Saturday, making the mistake of stopping in to eat lunch at the restaurant before her shift started. They were unexpectedly busy, and she ended up seating people, waiting tables, and working in the kitchen in her shorts and t-shirt! She never did get a chance to eat the lunch she'd ordered.

Sunday she worked 13 hours, from prep for brunch through cleaning up after dinner service. So Monday, which she had off, she sat on her butt while I drove home. She did pull herself together enough to go out to dinner at O'Charley's (yeah, we do hit those chain restaurants sometimes) and make a Wal-Mart run. Then we went home and shared a slice of pound cake with drunken strawberries (macerated in sugar and BOOZE.) Night night, sweet dreams!

Oh, but before I leave you, I have to update you on Herb! He has become an It...sometime on Saturday he pupated.

Sorry the picture's not the best, but I'll probably have another week to try again; pupation takes 9 to 11 days, according to this website. I knew it was coming, as Herb emptied his digestive tract on Thursday and stopped eating. It was great timing, since Miss Chef had asked me before I left, "Do I have to feed the caterpillar, too?"

UPDATE: Here's another shot I took Thursday of about 10 that I took; I'm often frustrated with my camera's inability to do close-ups. But you can definitely see Herb has undergone a notable change, and you can see the white stringy "sling" that's holding the pupa to the stick. The jagged yellow "fins" down the bottom remind me of the classic old Godzilla movies. :)

Bonus Baby: This morning, when I was getting ready to leave for work, Miss Chef was awake, lying in bed and grumbling about the stupid bird in the bush outside. I'd been keeping an eye on a pair of mockingbirds building a nest in there, and when I peeked outside, this is what I saw:

Grouchy-looking guy, and noisy as heck. I told Miss Chef she was going to have to put up with the noise for another couple of days at least. For once, I'm glad I'm up with the sun anyway!

UPDATE #2! I saw this same fledgling--I think--in the backyard this afternoon. Mommy and/or Daddy hang around at a distance, chirping encouragement for baby to fly, I guess. Haven't seen him fly yet, but I need to keep an eye on Rosie for the next few days, as she's already shown an interest in this moving, fluffy toy. We had to rescue a baby robin from her maw a couple of years ago, so she's already got a record of flagrant feathered felonies.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day

For them, our mere existence is a gift in itself.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Guest or Pest?

I went out to pick some oregano yesterday, and just look at was perched on the parsley!

No, not a canning jar with grass in it, a caterpillar. A bright, stripey-spotty Jamaican-themed caterpillar.

I'm a little hesitant to admit that my first instinct was to moosh it, because I thought it was a tomato hornworm. But then I took a closer look, and thought, "This may be one of those really cool garden-friendly bugs people try to attract!"

I thought I remembered reading something about parsley-eating larvae somewhere in a "how to attract wildlife" gardening article. So I googled something like "caterpillar on parsley" and came up with: swallowtail butterfly. Larva, that is. Which do, indeed, love them some parsley; in fact, one site even referred to them as "parsley worms." Worm, indeed; I don't think so.

In fact, unlike worms, these guys are more on the "pest" side of the equation. But we have two big fluffy parsley plants, so I figured we could spare some. I had originally taken the little guy inside for ease of identification, but then I thought, "What if I put him back outside and some bird gobbles him up?" So I've opted to adopt. For the time being, anyway.

And you know what? I don't think I ever did this as a kid. Oh, sure, there was the woolly bear I "adopted," insisting on carrying it in my hand to the grocery store, of all places. I remember I couldn't understand why mommy didn't want me to take it, until I dropped it down in the grating at the front of the meat cooler. I was devastated and guilt-ridden about my poor woolly bear being forced into permanent hibernation. I wonder if he's still curled up in a little ball down there, waiting for spring, dammit!

Well, anyway, today I'm enjoying watching my little green friend as he munches his way through leaf after leaf. Caterpillars poop a LOT for their size. I'm hoping it'll pupate and I can watch the butterfly emerge. Plus, I've even come up with a name for "him" (do caterpillars have gender?): Herb.

And then, tonight, when I went out to replenish his foliage, what did I spot, but another, identical parsley plucker perambulating upon the plant. Hmmm. That one's just gonna have to feed himself. Or herself.

Hey, I'm leaving town this weekend to go spend Mother's Day mother, of all people. So chances are I won't be around the blogosphere 'til next week. Happy weekend to you all!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Strawberry Yields

Oh my gawd! I have been trying since Monday to post some pics of our all-day canning fest last Sunday. I've just been too busy trying to catch up with all the stuff we didn't get done Sunday, and too tired to get it all done after work. So here's a slap-dash catchup before you all forget we even picked strawberries in the first place. (3 gallons, if you'll remember.)

As it turns out, processing 3 gallons of berries in a home kitchen really is an all-day event. Well, we didn't really start until after noon, but we didn't pull the last jars out of the water bath until about 10:30 that night. So, half-day/half-night; still, that's a lot of hours.

Annoyingly, we spent half the day doing math: how many cups in a gallon, how much pectin to buy, how many jars of what size, how many batches of each recipe? I finally realized why my mom and her canning buddy used to spend all day long in discussion. I used to think "They do this every year; don't they have this figured out yet?" Ha! Too many variables, my friends, too many variables.

By the time we were done, my feet were sore, my legs were sore and my mind was shot. But we were both thrilled at what we had accomplished. Miss Chef estimated we saved ourselves about $50 overall--assuming we would go out and buy so many all-natural strawberry products.

It wasn't really about the money, though; it was proving to ourselves that we could do it. Because Miss Chef has about a dozen tomato plants in the ground, and we are searching for room around the yard for another 8 or 9 homeless seedlings. So, we have future canning plans. I've even invited my mom up already to help us out when the tomatoes start coming in. Should be interesting doing all that math with three of us!

Well, back to the strawberries. First of all, a little about the process. (Bear with me, canning experts, for I know there are several of you reading this--go ahead and skip to below the picture.)

All the recipes we used involve the "hot pack method." This simply means you cook the food before you can it. After placing the food in the jars and putting on the lids, you submerge the jars in boiling water for a specified amount of time. For our recipes, that was either 10 or 15 minutes.

All this heat serves to kill any bacteria that can cause food spoilage. There's all kinds of sterilization of equipment, but it pretty much just involves a lot of hot water.

From left to right, you see the stockpot with the burbling strawberry mix, the pressure cooker / canner (which we didn't use the pressure part of) which is boiling filled jars, and sterilized quart jars awaiting their strawberry bliss. Behind the quart jars you can just barely see my favorite canning utensil: the jar lifter, a fancy, big-ass tongs designed to securely haul those heavy glass jars out of boiling water without slipping. Indispensible.

So, what did we get? This, for starters:

The large ones are pints, the small ones are 8 ounces. On the left are about a dozen jars of strawberry jam. On the right, whole strawberries in syrup (the one on the far right was the last one to be filled, thus the low strawberry to syrup ratio). In the back, you probably can't tell, but there are 4 jars filled with green. There was a recipe for mint jelly on the next page, and we have a very enthusiastic mint patch, so we went for it. Miss Chef just happened to have bought a lamb shoulder roast at the market the day before, so it was a bit serendipitous. (or however you spell that)

Oh, but wait, there's more!

I really wanted to get a shot of these with the sun hitting the jars directly, because they are a gorgeous red! These jars deserve a little introduction.

We used a canning & preserving book put out by the Ball Company*, and of course, Miss Chef can't resist exploring every page of a cookbook! She found a recipe for strawberry lemonade concentrate which we both agreed sounded quite interesting. We decided to make a double batch, which required 8 cups of lemon juice. Miss Chef turned up her nose at pre-packed lemon juice; instead, she went back to the grocery store and returned with a huge sack of lemons. It took 34 of them, hand-squeezed, to get enough--plus a few oranges.

I didn't mind, though; I was busy stirrring the second batch of jam, so I got out of squeezing duty. Anyway, the deal with the concentrate is you combine it with an equal amount of water, tonic or--yummy!--ginger ale!! Miss Chef is a big fan of Vernor's ginger ale (her family's from Michigan originally), so it will be interesting to see how those two combine.

So far, the only thing we've tasted is the jam, and WOWZA! I suppose Mom's jam tasted that good, but my taste memory doesn't go back that far, so I have to say this is the best jam I've tasted. No corn syrup, no clarified pear juice, just strawberries, a whole lot of sugar, a little bit of lemon juice, and pectin. Yum!

That's it for now, folks, but Miss Chef has big plans for the next fruit crop...we'll see if we get around to picking blackberries when they ripen up. I'm quite sure I'll let you know!

*Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving (2006) Kingry, Judi and Lauren Devine

We also used the "Canning & Preserving for Dummies" book, which has a nice little section explaining pectin.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Strawberry Fields

Oh yeah, I've been looking forward to this day since Miss Chef and I talked about it last weekend...strawberry picking!

Charlotte has an exceptional number of farms within a short driving distance, and there are all kinds of pick-your-own fruit places. Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, goes on all summer. Last year we completely missed strawberry season. I'm not sure what Miss Chef's excuse was, but my excuse is I'm a Yankee. Back home, we didn't get into the height of strawberry season until June. Down here, it's been at least a week since the farms have been open.

So last weekend, we scheduled it. We had to; there are always so many things for us to rush around and do in our short time together, "big" events like these are always pushed back 'til next week. We sat down and decided to pick Saturday morning before Miss Chef had to go to work, and spend all day Sunday making jam and whatever else we could come up with.

Before heading off with our map in hand, however, we had a stop to make, of course: the farmers' market. (Well, duh!)

See that stuff on the right side of the board? Miss Chef makes those; the caramel is of course her own creation hatched in her creative/crazy little brain. When we stopped by to say hi to Michele around 8:30, she said she'd already sold two.

(Side story: While the three of us were chatting, I asked Michele, "Have you had all your kids already?" and Miss Chef was shocked--Michele's children are teenagers, so she had no idea why I was asking her that! Michele knew, though. And yes, her kidding season is definitely over.)

Okay, so we left the market and then headed off, map in hand to Springs Farm in Fort Mill, SC. Yup, we're less than 10 miles from the border, so we have no problem skipping into the next state. Local is local.

We bought our baskets--three gallons worth--at the market, then parked by the field and were assigned to our rows. The attendant directed us to start at the far end, which took a little bit of self-restraint, as we had to walk by all kinds of gorgeous, ripe berries just lying there!

Yum, yum! When we had picked up our baskets, and I saw how much empty space we had to fill, I said, "This may take longer than I expected." But the field was very clean, the berry plants poking up through black plastic, laying their luscious wares out for all to see. It was very easy, and the weather was perfect: warm, but overcast, so the sun wasn't beating down on our heads.

Miss Chef and I got to work, and almost before I knew it, my basket was full.

(This picture is now our desktop background; click on it to biggerize it, and you'll understand why!)

Miss Chef had the other two boxes, so I grabbed one to finish it off, carefully piling as many berries as I could, without them rolling off. I had to carry them back across the stony, lumpy field to the car, after all. I certainly didn't want to leave any lying in the row, and I had comic images of trying to pick up fallen strawberries as more dropped from my basket with every move.

Miss Chef was even more determined to get her full gallon's worth. She couldn't seem to stop! (She really loves strawberries...a lot.)

Finally, after a few halts on the way out, to pick the red, ripe few she just couldn't resist, we made it back to the car. Instead of my losing strawberries on the way back, I actually picked a few up that seemed to have fallen from somebody else's box. Good thing I left a little extra room on top, huh?

So, here's what we've got now...

...along with some red-stained fingers that, as Miss Chef said, made it look like we'd butchered a small animal. The camera also has a bright red smear across it as if we'd bludgeoned someone in the head with it. Should probably wipe that off...

So the strawberries are gonna hang out in the cooler overnight, until we get to processing them tomorrow. I'll be sure to take pictures of the results!

Oh, and you know what makes it even better? Chef Adam bought two gallons at the market for the restaurant for $15 each--even though Miss Chef had told him we could pick him some. He found it a little pricey, but I guess he wanted to maintain that relationship with the market. When we went to pick ours, we got three gallons for $7.50 each--half the price!

Miss Chef packed herself a little container of ours to take to work tonight, and told me she was going to eat them in front of Chef Adam saying, "half-price....mmmmm!"

They have a very special relationship.